Ya know?, the second “solo” posthumous album from the first Ramone to leave home, is a welcome bonus beat to a canon all too foreshortened by Joey’s passing in the space odyssey year of 2001. Initially sparked by works-in-progress found amid his effects (as those things we leave behind are quaintly referred to — kind of like the reverb or chorus or flanging of our lives), the tracks have been enhanced by the friends that Joey loved, and who loved him in return.
This overdubbing-in-hindsight has always been scoffed at; witness the brouhaha over Buddy Holly’s last recordings, or the re-imaginings of Jimi Hendrix’s final studio sessions. But there is little to think that the finished songs that Joey would never finish himself could sound markedly different than what has been assembled here. He always played with his local brethren and compatriots, whether jamming on a late night stage somewhere in the East Village, walking the short distance from his apartment overlooking Third Avenue, or rooting bands on from the sidelines, a tall gangling presence back by the bar often joined by another tall, gangling presence — me. That’s the first memory that comes to mind when I think of Joey, somewhere in the ’90s, in Coney Island High, watching Question Mark and the Mysterians.
I had known the Ramones early on, about the time they got on the CBGB stage; and of the four or five bands playing the joint at the time, they appeared fully conceived — short, elemental and purposefully dumb songs, clothed in sneakers, ripped jeans and Wild One jackets. They just had to learn how to keep up with their head-rush momentum. This reductive rock ‘n’ roll only brought things back to square one, the moment where it all begins again, which is the starting point for any musical regeneration. The Ramones got better and better at wielding their blunt object. The point-and-shoot aspect of the songs never changed. It is no wonder that they would become the template of punk, so simple an idea: eight on the floor, guitar and bass, split in half for the drumbeat, four to the bar. Press go.
But that was punk, and Joey, with his Forest Hills romanticism, somewhat like another neighborhood boy, Paul Simon, was beset by a heartbeat romantic streak. The Ramones (Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny) could be like the Three Stooges — or four, counting Shemp, who would be a stand-in for Tommy — but only Joey could duet with Ronnie Spector, and celebrate Christmas with her. It’s this that made the Ramones more than a one-note mantra; that gave them heart, and soul.
There’s no better way to start an afterlife record then with those words in mind. Taking guitar-and-voice demos and ideas that were just being born and amplifying them is one thing; finding the spirit and keeping the flame burning is another. The provenance of this record is tangled in the usual manner of such restorations, depending on who Joey was working with at any given time, but somehow the assembled cast of characters shapeshifts to make room for everyone he creatively intermingled with. There are collaborations with New York war vets like Daniel Rey, Jean Beauvoir, Ritchie Stotts, and Andy Shernoff; guest appearances by Bun.E. Carlos, Holly Beth Vincent, Joan Jett and Handsome Dick; and brought to fruition by the understanding touch of Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh, and the venerable Ed Stasium. Ed, who recorded the Ramones in their hey-ho day, gives the album the crunch-and-punch that Joey thrived on, capturing his right jab to the air as he clenched the microphone stand with the other. Stasium brings his considerable sonic ear to the production — as a producer, he has worked with Living Color and Soul Asylum to define their guitar onslaughts — along with a gift for harmony and hook that frames Joey’s distinctive epiglottal warbles. And as ever, it is lovely to hear Jeff Hyman’s Ramonic voice, an accent all his own. One of the pleasures of this album is the feeling like you’re eavesdropping on the creative process, when the song is becoming, and Joey’s learning how to sing it, until there’s no more left to sing.
That’s when his friends come visit. My turn comes in a hotel room overlooking the Hudson. Ed has set up the Tools and a well-positioned microphone. The track is “New York City,” Joey’s paean to his hometown, and I’m one of a gang vocal that includes Little Steven, Handsome Dick and Genya Raven. I’m wishing I had a handle for a name; but then, like Joey, we all adopt our identities when we take up the sacred mantle of rock transformation.
Joey name-checks all the clubs of that Manhattan moment — “the Cat Club, Pyramid, Limelight, Paul’s Lounge, Save the Robots.” It’s a measure of my own longevity that I can pinpoint the exact era in which the song was written: middle ’80s. The venues may be gone, as is Joey, but we got a theme song to sing: “I like it in this city, in this New York City…”
I’m doubling my part when I look out the window, high up over the metropolis that Joey, in his curious way, made his own, and now represents all over the world, wherever the flag of rock’s ever-steadfast virtues is flying. A ghostly visitation, perhaps, but I’ll take the seance, and the reassurance of immortality it gifts us.